Omicron could overwhelm healthcare system if we are not prepared, warns public health expert

Malaysian health authorities should adopt new strategies to ensure that the healthcare system will not collapse in dealing with the latest Covid-19 Omicron variant.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that current data indicate that Omicron has an even higher growth advantage compared to the Delta variant.

According to the WHO, even if the Omicron infection was less severe compared to Delta, the rapid increase in cases would result in an increase in hospitalisations, putting pressure on the healthcare system for treating patients with both Covid-19, and other types of diseases.

Speaking to Twentytwo13, a government public health and disaster expert said while those infected can be treated at home, if their symptoms persisted, they would require hospitalisation.

“The same problem will then arise, like what was seen at the height of the pandemic last year. When beds are insufficient, people will die,” said the expert, who requested anonymity.

“Omicron spreads five times faster than the Delta variant, and the manifestation can be as severe as Delta.”

Last week, the Health Ministry said it was ready to use district hospitals as hybrid hospitals to treat cases in Categories One to Three.

The ministry also said it was prepared to refer Categories Four and Five patients to specialist hospitals, while patients who are stable would be monitored at home via the Covid-19 Assessment Centre (CAC). Antiviral drugs would also be used at the CAC and quarantine and treatment centre (PKRC) levels.

The expert said if the Malaysian healthcare system was inundated with Omicron cases, the system could go downhill – similar to that being experienced in the United Kingdom and the United States.

“Events abroad must be used as a benchmark for the Health Ministry to ensure that its level of preparedness is not the same as before,” said the expert.

“There must be a buffer. We must add more beds in hospitals, similar to during a crisis. This way, less reliance will be placed on large PKRCs, as manpower is a problem.”

He added one way to create more space for beds is by utilising existing spaces in hospitals, including parking bays.

“The same staff at the hospital can then monitor these patients. There is no need to source for medical staff from all over the country,” said the expert.

“It can be done. In fact, at the height of the pandemic last year, we saw how the Disaster Management Zone at Hospital Angkatan Tentera Tuanku Mizan in Wangsa Maju was used to treat Covid-19 patients.”

He added as Covid-19 is going to be around for the foreseeable future, the powers that be should not constantly rely on “temporary” solutions.

“The argument that it would be a waste to create more spaces for beds in hospitals if a disaster does not occur, does not hold water as these facilities can be used to treat severe acute respiratory infections (SARI) cases.

“With a low booster pick-up rate (less than 33 per cent), a disaster is bound to happen if it spreads beyond our control and if we are not prepared.”

He added that while those getting infected right now remained in Categories One and Two, it is bound to affect those in the high-risk groups – where hospitalisations could be necessary – if Omicron becomes widespread.

Omicron was first detected in Malaysia on Dec 3, 2021.

“We also do not know how it will impact children who are not vaccinated. We must learn to live with Covid-19 and increase our level of preparedness, if it has not been increased.”

According to the WHO, the number of new Covid-19 cases worldwide increased in the past week (Jan 10-16, 2022). Across the six WHO regions, over 18 million new cases were reported during the same period, and over 45,000 new deaths were recorded.

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